Happy Canada Day! July 1 is when our neighbors to the north annually celebrate their heritage and commemorate the anniversary of their country achieving independence from British rule. It also is a day that always reminds me of the best road trip I ever took, a 16-day journey that covered more than 6,000 miles (and included celebrating Canada Day in Canada).
This year is the fifth anniversary of that road trip. Earlier today, I read the travel piece I wrote about the trip for the newspaper I worked for at the time, the Streator Times-Press. As you might imagine, it is a lengthy article, but rereading it brought back lots of memories for me: seeing bison and wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, searching for graham crackers in Moose Jaw, watching fireworks in Canada on Canada Day and in America on Independence Day, wearing shorts while having a snowball fight on a mountaintop on July 4, encountering two black bears while hiking at Glacier National Park in Montana, the melancholy feeling of leaving Denver as we started the long drive home, and so much more.
What follows is my published account of the road trip — the first travel story I ever had published.
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This summer, I set out with my friend Isaac on that great American rite of passage – a cross-country trek in the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Afflicted with national park fever after a trip to the South Dakota badlands last year, this time we planned a grand-scale, two-week journey including the North Dakota badlands, Calgary, the Canadian Rockies, Glacier National Park in Montana, Salt Lake City, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah, Colorado, and more.
In the beginning, perhaps this seemed, at best, wishful thinking, or, at worst, ridiculously insane. After all, the idea was to drive more than 6,000 miles in 16 days through 10 states and three Canadian provinces. But in the end, with plan adjustments along the way, we pulled it off, experiencing the adventure of a lifetime.
Anxious to reach our first destination as soon as possible, we set a lofty goal for ourselves to drive all the way to the North Dakota badlands by the end of Day 1. This meant leaving Rockford (where Isaac lives) by 4 a.m. and spending almost the entire day in the car.
Of course, we made occasional stops to stretch and break up the monotony of the road, most notably in Fargo, N.D., and Bismarck, N.D. Fargo is a nice-looking city undergoing a downtown revitalization. Bismarck, on the other hand, was quite disappointing, looking pretty rundown for a state capital.
We reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which showcases the North Dakota badlands, about 17 hours after our initial departure time. We set up camp a few miles south of Medora, an Old West-style town located outside the south entrance to the national park, just off Interstate 94.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into two main sections, a south unit and a north unit, located about 70 miles apart. Because neither unit is huge and both have paved scenic drives, it is easy to go through the entire park in one or two days, depending on how quickly you choose to do so.
We spent only one full day at the park, starting with the 36-mile scenic loop drive in the south unit. There are plenty of overlooks allowing visitors to scope the strangely-shaped, multicolored landscape, obscured in some areas by cottonwood trees, juniper bushes and other vegetation.
The colors of the badlands are much more pronounced in the north unit, making it the more attractive of the two sections. Still, the south unit has several areas worth seeing. Of particular note is Scoria Point, which appears to “bleed” a deep-reddish bricklike color called scoria. A walk along the Coal Vein Trail reveals badlands trimmed with lines of black coal that look like arteries running through the hillsides.
The Wind Canyon Trail is steep in spots but well worth the short hike. From atop the canyon, carved over time into smooth shapes by sandblasting winds, you get a beautiful view of a long oxbow curve in the Little Missouri River. Unfortunately, during the summer months, the Little Missouri usually isn’t very deep in this area, so there isn’t much riverflow to see. There was a herd of bison to be seen in the distance, though.
In the southeast part of the park is Painted Canyon, which offers the best overview of the badlands from atop a grassy plateau. The park’s north unit is about an hour north of Painted Canyon via nearby Highway 85.
Overall the north-unit badlands are more scenic because there is less vegetation obstructing one’s view of the bands of color marking layers of silt and sediment in the craggy hills. Resembling the South Dakota badlands, these buttes and canyons include hues of purple, blue, black, red and beige.
The north unit’s scenic drive lasts about 15 miles one way, ending at Oxbow Overlook, where there’s another great overview of the badlands. A stop along the way, the River Bend Overlook, showcases the curves in the Little Missouri River caused by glaciation.
A unique part of the north unit is Battleship Butte, where numerous cannonball concretions were unearthed by erosion. Cannonball concretions are large spheres formed by groundwater minerals cementing sandstone together inside layers of sediment. While the sediment layers eroded over time, the hardened spheres remained intact, leaving some sticking out butte sides and others completely exposed at ground level. As the name indicates, the spheres look like giant cannonballs.
These characteristics of the badlands can be seen closer up by hiking on any of the numerous marked trails in the park. One path we particularly enjoyed was the Caprock Coulee and Upper Caprock Coulee trails, which join to form a loop about six miles long. The Caprock Coulee Trail runs alongside a towering butte before meeting the Upper Caprock Coulee Trail, which takes hikers up a sometimes-steep path to the top of a scenic plateau. The night sky arrived before we reached the top of the plateau, giving us a clear view of thousands of stars.
On Day 3 we drove north on Highway 85 toward Canada, reaching the border around noon. Knowing we wouldn’t reach the Canadian Rockies that day, we took the suggestion of a Weyburn woman and camped overnight in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, which is located along the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Driving through Saskatchewan was very similar to driving through southern Illinois – a lot of farmland dotted by the occasional small community. A bigger community of note along Trans-Canada Highway 1 is Moose Jaw, which earned the nickname “Little Chicago” due to the underground tunnels used by bootleggers during Prohibition. Today the tunnels are marketed as a tourist attraction where guides tell stories of Al Capone’s gang hiding in Moose Jaw to avoid United States law enforcement agents.
Cypress Hills has two lakes, rolling grasslands and forest, but most notable is Bald Butte, the highest point in Saskatchewan (4,816 feet). From Bald Butte you can literally look back in time, as Alberta is an hour behind Saskatchewan.
By nightfall on Day 4 we reached the Canadian Rockies, setting up camp on the outskirts of Banff National Park. About an hour east of Banff is Calgary, where we spent some time exploring the city that hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics.
After driving through flatlands and tiny hamlets all day, seeing the Calgary skyline was a welcome reminder of civilization. A notable landmark for tourists is the Calgary Tower, where one can ride an elevator to the top for a bird’s-eye view of the city below and the mountains in the distance. We skipped the tower since heavy cloud coverage made visibility poor.
We still managed to get a good view of the skyline from a south side hill we discovered by sheer luck. From there we saw the Pengrowth Saddledome, home stadium of hockey’s Calgary Flames, and Stampede Park, where the annual Calgary Stampede is held.
Calgary impressed me as a place worth checking out over a period of days, not hours, but we didn’t have the time to do that. We still had a lot of mountain hiking ahead of us.
We spent the next five days exploring the Canadian Rockies through four national parks clustered together: Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay. Because of its location along Trans-Canada Highway 1, Banff is the most visited of the four parks. Banff and Jasper are much bigger and more scenic than Yoho and Kootenay, but there certainly are sights worth seeing in the smaller parks as well.
If you spend several days in the area as we did, it’s economical to buy an annual parks pass for $50 (Canadian) because there are countless things to do there.
Being my first time in the mountains, I was completely awed by the scenery. Although we were in Canada, I finally understood what Katherine Lee Bates meant when she wrote of purple mountains’ majesty in “America the Beautiful.”
Over the next few days we hiked up, beneath and between mountains, viewed beautiful turquoise-colored lakes and long winding rivers, walked on a glacier, and saw wildlife galore. It was the experience of a lifetime.
The recreational options are too numerous to list, so I’ll just mention a few highlights. We stuck mainly to mountain hiking, but many visitors also choose to go fishing, skiing or golfing.
If you’re itching to hike up a mountain, Sulphur Mountain near Banff Town is a great option. It takes at least two hours to reach the summit, which is nearly 7,500 feet above sea level and offers an exceptional view of the surrounding mountain range. From that elevation, Banff Town and the nearby Bow River look like they’re part of a model railroad setup.
There is a steady flow of visitors to the top of Sulphur Mountain because of the Banff Gondola, which transports riders to the summit in eight minutes. You only pay for the ride to the summit, so hikers can ride down for free.
At the summit there’s an observational terrace, two restaurants, a snack bar, and of course, a gift shop. There’s also the cosmic ray station where scientific observations were made for the Canadian government in the early 1900s.
Many lakes in the Canadian Rockies are strikingly turquoise-colored from a combination of minerals and glacial melt. Lake Louise in Banff National Park is the most famous one thanks to the resort overlooking it. As a result, Lake Louise is not the place to go when searching for solitude. Nearby Moraine Lake is less crowded and has a better trail system, including a backcountry path leading to secluded Consolation Lake. All three lakes have mountainous backdrops.
Linking Banff and Jasper national parks is the Icefields Parkway, considered one of the most scenic roadways in Canada. I agree. The 143-mile highway lies along the Continental Divide, surrounded by countless mountain peaks, glaciers, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. It’s also a good area to see wildlife, like the brown bear cub we spotted grazing along the road.
Marking the border between Banff and Jasper is the Columbia Icefield, which measures 87 square miles and covers several mountain peaks. The most visible part of the icefield is the Athabasca Glacier, which is accessible via guided tour. A vehicle resembling a bus with giant tractor tires transported us to the edge of the glacier, where we were allowed to disembark and walk around for 10 minutes.
Noting several streams of surface melt running down the ice, our guide said the glacier water is the cleanest found on earth and encouraged us to sample it. Sure enough, the water looked and tasted pure – and was also very cold.
The most intriguing part of walking on the glacier was our proximity to a peak that pours water runoff into rivers leading to three different oceans: the Pacific, the Arctic and the Atlantic. Thinking about how far the Columbia Icefield’s surface melt travels somehow made the scale of our road trip seem a little bit smaller.
Glacier National Park
We returned to the United States on Day 9 of our trip. It was July 4 and we wanted to celebrate Independence Day on American soil, so we headed down to Glacier National Park in Montana. We watched fireworks over Whitefish Lake, near Glacier. (Incidentally, we watched Canada Day fireworks in Calgary three days earlier. Comparing the two shows, it seems we Americans like to pack a lot more fireworks into our displays than the Maple Leafers.)
We set up camp near Bowman Lake in the northwest section of the park. It’s a long drive to Bowman Lake from the park’s west entrance, and much of the road is unpaved. However, if you’re looking for a secluded campground with a quiet, scenic lake surrounded by mountains, Bowman is the way to go.
We were told that fishermen love Bowman Lake because relatively few people go there. Serious naturalists also enjoy the lake because bald eagles nest around it and can be seen scanning the waters for fish. We took advantage of the lake’s tranquility by rafting to the middle of the lake and spending a couple hours floating in the calm waters.
We spent much of Day 10 on and around Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile stretch of highway across Glacier via the Continental Divide. This road, especially at Logan Pass (6,646 feet above sea level), is surrounded by spectacular vistas of mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls. I imagine the scenery is even more spectacular in autumn after the leaves have changed colors.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is bookended by two long lakes. St. Mary Lake is on the east end of the byway; Lake McDonald is on the west end. The pristine-looking Lake McDonald is the park’s largest lake, measuring 10 miles long and 472 feet deep.
The Hidden Lake Nature Trail is a neat sidetrack from the road. The three-mile roundtrip hike begins behind the Logan Pass visitor center. The trail begins on a boardwalk but eventually you’re just walking on ice and snow. A lot of people turn around at the end of the boardwalk, but those who venture beyond are treated to a mountainside lake hidden from view until they’re practically on top of it. The lake is surrounded by an interesting blend of snow, grass and wildflowers, and if you’re lucky, you might see a mountain goat on a nearby ledge.
We spent the next day in the Many Glacier section of the park. We saw an abundance of wildlife during a hike to Ptarmigan Lake, including numerous bighorn sheep, a golden eagle perched in its nest, and two black bears eating berries near the trail. Fortunately the bears ignored us and we survived to tell the tale of our close encounter. (Click here to read my account of our bear encounter.)
The only drawback to Glacier National Park is there aren’t many glaciers to see. Jackson Glacier is the most visible one from Going-to-the-Sun Road, but it might not be there 25 years from now. Scientists estimate the rapidly melting Montana glaciers could all be gone by 2030.
On Day 12 we woke up early and headed south toward Salt Lake City. We stopped in a few Montana communities, including Helena, where we checked out the state capitol building, and a small fishing town called Craig, located along the Missouri River. We ate a late dinner in Idaho Falls and spent the night at a hotel near Salt Lake City.
Day 13 began with a too-quick look around Salt Lake City. We spent only an hour there because we had five more to drive before reaching our next destination: Zion National Park.
Zion is located in the southwest corner of Utah, practically in Arizona. This region of the state gets rather hot during the summer months, quite different from the cooler temperatures we experienced in the mountains.
Zion is filled with vividly colored cliffs and canyons painted in red and orange hues. There’s also a desert swamp, a petrified forest, a minor waterfall, and the Virgin River. There’s a narrow canyon pass where the Virgin River is shallow enough to wade across safely.
Hiking is encouraged, but you have to ride a shuttle to most of the trailheads. That’s because visitors are no longer allowed to drive through the park due to traffic congestion problems.
More impressive than Zion was Bryce Canyon National Park, which we visited on Day 14. Bryce Canyon is filled with hoodoos – oddly shaped pillars of rock shaped by erosion. The hoodoo spires are brightly colored in various shades of pink, orange and red. Like clouds, no two hoodoos are shaped the same, leaving one’s mind to imagine each spire resembles something different.
The best overall views in Bryce Canyon are at Sunrise and Sunset points. Both places are elevated above much of the park, allowing one to see miles of hoodoos in a single gaze.
We spent just two days in southern Utah – far too little time to appreciate all the scenery there. In addition to Zion and Bryce Canyon, there are three other national parks in the immediate area: Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches. Each supposedly is as scenic as the others, and a nature buff could easily spend a whole week in the area.
All good things must come to an end, and our road trip was no exception. As the sun began to drop on Day 14, we began the long drive home, with just two more stops planned in Colorado.
Interstate 70 took us straight through the heart of Colorado, running alongside old Route 6, the cross-country road made famous by Kerouac. We skirted Eagle and saw the ski slopes of Vail, but didn’t stop until we reached Georgetown. There we exited onto Colorado State Highway 5, which would lead us nearly to the summit of Mount Evans.
Highway 5 is commonly known as the Mount Evans Byway, the highest paved road in North America. The road reaches an elevation of 14,130 feet, at which point you can park your vehicle and walk up the final 134 feet to the summit. It costs $10 per vehicle to travel the road, but believe me, the view from atop one of Colorado’s tallest mountains is well worth the money.
We spent a few hours on Mount Evans before heading to Denver. We spent a few hours in Denver, didn’t want to leave, but knew we had to because vacation would be over soon.
We spent our last night on the road in North Platte, Neb. Just as the kindhearted folks here in Streator did, North Platters banded together to organize a canteen for soldiers traveling through town on their way to joining the fighting in World War II. In a way, that historical tidbit made me feel like I was already home.
On the final day we spent 12 more hours on the road, passing through Omaha, Des Moines, and a lot of farmland. As we drove through the Quad Cities, the mighty Mississippi River welcomed us back to Illinois, a sure sign our road trip was ending.
At that point, adrenaline pumped through my veins as I eagerly anticipated a comfortable bed at the end of the road. After driving more than 6,000 miles, a good night’s rest tops the itinerary of things to do upon returning home. Then, the next morning, it’s time to start sorting through all the memories picked up along the way.
Memories to last a lifetime.